Unearthing Memories: Recalling the burial of the ’57 Plymouth

F or the life-long residents of Tulsa, Okla., the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop buried under the front lawn of the city’s courthouse is more time machine than automobile. While much of the country debates the fate of the half-century entombed Belvedere, to be dug up on June 15, the car is already working just fine as mental transportation. It’s allowing those Tulsans present at its burial to recall what life was like in their city 50 years ago.

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Debbie Carr-Dover (center), age 3 in 1957, poses with two friends on the hood of Plymouth as it’s suspended from the crane over the time capsule vault that was constructed by her father and uncle. (Tulsa Historical Society photo)

Those Tulsans who were at or took part in the Plymouth’s burial in 1957 eagerly await its re-entry into the world. They are being interviewed by media from around the globe, including Old Cars Weekly, to report their memories of that June day 50 years ago when the Belvedere was sealed in a time capsule as part of the city’s Tulsarama celebration of Oklahoma’s Semi-Centennial. All this attention is giving these residents the chance to reminisce about their youth; to recall a time when life was a bit simpler, slower and, as evidenced by a city willing to bury a new automobile, possibly a lot more fun!

 Youthful recollections

One Tulsan who’s especially excited for June 15 to arrive is Paul Turney. There’s that Plymouth unearthing thing going on, but Turney, along with his Daniel Webster High School classmates will be celebrating their 50th high school reunion that day. Turney and his schoolmates will incorporate the Belvedere’s unearthing as part of their reunion activities. They will board a bus and ride downtown to take in Tulsarama’s observance of Oklahoma’s century of statehood and catch a glimpse of the Plymouth, an old friend Turney hasn’t seen in 50 years.

Turney, who was 17 on June 15, 1957, and just out of high school, vividly remembers the Plymouth being readied for burial.

“My friend, James Bankston, and I were going downtown to go to the movies,” he said. “It was a nice day. I had on a short-sleeve shirt.”

Turney recalls the Plymouth being suspended from a crane near the concrete time capsule vault. “You could walk right up and look inside the car,” he said, adding, “The windows were down.” Asked if there were any security measures in place, Turney replied, “Back then, you didn’t need it. People were pretty honest.”

Not content to just look, Turney and Bankston left their mark on the Plymouth. Turney explained, “The whitewalls were filled with peoples’ names. We walked up to the right rear tire and signed our names.”

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Paul Turney and friend James Bankston were among the many Tulsans who signed the whitewalls of the Plymouth’s tires before the car’s burial. (Tulsa Historical Society photo)

At that point, the pair felt a higher calling and left the burial site. “We were more interested in the movie than the car. We were looking for girls,” Turney stressed. Their sudden departure, to this day, continues to frustrate Turney. He said he’s uncertain if he even entered the contest to guess Tulsa’s 2007 population, the closest guess to be awarded the Plymouth, its contents and a $100 savings account that has accrued significant interest in the intervening 50 years.

Asked about the status of Tulsa in 1957, Turney described the city as a “nice clean town. It was the oil capital of the world back then.” Turney said he spent his youth chasing girls, horseback riding and climbing Lookout Mountain. With Tulsa being a significant stop on the famed “Mother Road” Route 66, cruising was also a youthful pasttime.

Working with his brother at a Tulsa service station at that time, Turney’s cruiser was a 1937 Pontiac two-door sedan. “My brother gave it to me so I could get to work,” Turney recalled. “He paid 25 dollars for it. I drove the heck out of it.”

With his Pontiac long gone, Turney said he wouldn’t mind owning the Plymouth after it’s unearthed, providing he entered the contest and made the correct guess. Asked what he thinks will be the condition of the Belvedere, Turney surmised, “I think it will look good. They wrapped it in paper and applied some kind of army grease to it.” He added, “It all depends on if the vault leaked.”

Sitting pretty

Someone who’s certain the time capsule vault has held up well is Debbie Carr-Dover. For her, the vault’s well-being is a matter of pride, as it was her father, Max, and uncle, Max True, who constructed the concrete structure the Plymouth has resided in since 1957.

If her family’s connection to the actual time capsule construction isn’t enough, Carr-Dover is also immortalized in one of the more famous photographs taken of the Plymouth before it was prepped for long-term storage. In the photo, three young girls – Carr-Dover in the middle – are perched posture perfect on the hood of the car while it’s suspended from the lowering crane. Being only 3 years old at the time, it remains memorable for Carr-Dover, but for all the wrong reasons.

“I can remember standing over the [vault] hole,” Carr-Dover explained. “My mother was panicking that I’d fall in.” Her mother’s unease was understandable as Carr-Dover stressed, “I was a feisty little girl.”

Carr-Dover said that her father and uncle, working under the business name of True Gun-ALL Equipment Corp., were selected to build the concrete time capsule based on other concrete work they had completed at the time in downtown Tulsa. It was a last-minute decision by the Tulsarama officials, and it shows, according to Carr-Dover. The vault was constructed just days before the Plymouth was lowered into it, and the concrete got nowhere near enough time to cure properly.

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Tulsarama officials promoted the Plymouth’s 50-year burial via the slogan “Suddenly….It’s 2007.” The Belvedere was on display at various locations throughout Tulsa prior to its being sealed in the time capsule vault. (Bud & Walter Brewer Collection/Tulsa Historical Society photo)

“In the [publicity] photos you can see some dark spots in it,” Carr-Dover explained of the uncured concrete vault. “It was a fast and furious [job].

“He was so looking forward to being around when they unearthed it,” Carr-Dover said of her father. Sadly, he died eight years ago. Her uncle, Max True, is still alive and is 91 years old. And while her father won’t be able to be with her at the Belvedere’s unearthing, Carr-Dover will have plenty of reminders of him when the time capsule is opened.

“Dad said he put a picture of me in the car,” Carr-Dover said. She added that she’s sure her father also entered the population guess contest, and is in the running to be named as the winner of the Plymouth.

Having such a lengthy and close tie to both the vault and the Plymouth, Carr-Dover was asked if after the car is unearthed might she experience a post-event letdown. “For me, it won’t be. I’ve been waiting [for June 15] 50 years.” Currently having only the memories of a child, she added, “I’ll be able to experience it on a more knowledgable level.”

The unauthorized racer

While Carr-Dover got to sit on the Plymouth’s hood, James Doyle one-upped her; he got to drive the Plymouth before it was entombed. Not only did he drive it, he sped around the T ulsa Fairgrounds dirt track in an attempt to promote the Belvedere in front of a packed grandstand. Never mind that he was only 15 years old at the time, and also had no driver’s license and little driving experience.

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The time capsule vault was constructed quickly by the True Gun-ALL Equipment Corp. The dark spots visible in this photo denote concrete that has not entirely cured. Moisture given off this concrete inside the sealed vault poses a potential threat to the well-being of the Plymouth. (Bud & Walter Brewer Collection/Tulsa Historical Society photo)

“They needed someone to drive the car around [the track] to show it to the people,” Doyle explained. “I was volunteered to drive the Plymouth,” he added, while his friend, Darrel Smith, got to drive a truck around the track.

At the time, Doyle and Smith were working for the Tulsarama event, supplying merchandise to the vendor stands located throughout the city. “We supplied the stands with Tulsarama memorabilia such as wooden nickels, plates and banners.”

The only explanation Doyle can give for his selection to drive the Plymouth at such a young age is, “I guess I looked older at the time.”

While he and Smith were present at the fairgrounds to supply memorabilia stands, they were pressed into service as drivers. As can be expected, his youthful enthusiasm got the best of Doyle. “I drove the car around the track, and I must have been going too fast,” he recalled. “I whizzed by the grandstands.” He said this angered the Tulsarama officials, as the people in the stands couldn’t get a good look at the car at such a high speed. His Plymouth driving privileges were revoked then and there.

Doyle said that Smith’s brother owned a 1932 Ford, and the pair’s only previous driving experience was limited to short stints behind the wheel of that Ford.

Doyle credited the great width and smoothness of the race track for preventing any potential disaster while he was piloting the Plymouth. Asked to speculate on what might have happened if he would have crashed the car, Doyle laughed and said, “I would have had to find an escape route.”

Looking back on his first high-speed driving experience, Doyle has nothing but fond memories of the Plymouth. “It drove good and looked nice. That car could really get up and go.” And while it may have been dangerous, Doyle added, “It was a fun thing to do.”

Doyle might be the most deserving winner of the Plymouth after it’s unearthed, based on his previous adventure with the car, but it’s not to be. “I was a brain-dead teenager,” he admitted, saying he never entered the population guess contest to try and win the car.

And the winner is….

While it’s clear James Doyle can’t win the car, it’s not crystal clear on just who will be named as the winner of the Plymouth, providing it’s intact after it’s unearthed and the closest guess to Tulsa’s 2007 population is announced. There are variables involved if the person with the closest guess is no longer alive.

Will a next-of-kin scenario unfold, where the winner would no longer have the emotional attachment to the car as one of the original contest entrants might? Will the Plymouth end up being shilled on ebay or at some upcoming collector vehicle auction, sold unceremoniously to a highest bidder again and again, and its historical merit lost forever?

Carr-Dover said the Plymouth represents an important part of Tulsa history and deserves something more than to be treated as a commodity. “You look back over 50 years and, for me, family, history, historical things have always been an important part of my life.” As far as the Plymouth ending up on some auction block, Carr-Dover summed up her feelings, and probably those of a good many other Tulsans and automotive history enthusiasts when she stressed, “That is not what they [1957 Tulsarama officials] would want for this car.”

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